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Long Island Railroad

MTA: All Projects on Standby, All Contracts in Jeopardy Without Federal Aid

Morning commuters at the Huntington station where many switch trains to go both east and west. Photo by Donna Deedy

As the MTA prepares its budget for the next few years, potentially reducing a massive amount of service due to the pandemic, local officials are saying some of that money earmarked for the Port Jefferson Branch line can get put to better use.

Though the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a $12 billion cash shortfall in its 2021 budget, its 2020-24 capital plan still includes plans to purchase new dual-mode (electric/diesel) trains for $150 million to replace older locomotives on several Long Island Rail Road lines, including Port Jeff.

PJ Village Trustee Bruce Miller says commuters to NYC have stayed away from the PJ line without electrification. Photo by Elana Glowatz

A representative of the MTA could not give any fresh updates on these new trains or other initiatives as all of them are on hold due to economic uncertainty, but whether or not the $16.7 billion annual-expenditure entity gets the aid it needs in time, officials are still against any new diesel trains without electrification first.

For years, area officials from all levels of government have been promoting electrifying the Port Jeff rail line, transforming it into a system like that of Ronkonkoma for faster, greener public transport. That initiative has been ongoing for years.

In March this year, the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club Long Island held a kickoff event for its green transportation initiative, holding one of its events at the Stony Brook train station. Village, town and county officials have stood behind them at this and past events.

Sierra Club Green Issues chair, Mayer Horn, is also a Dix Hills-based transportation consultant and has worked with Port Jefferson Village before. He said purchasing new diesel trains was “a very foolish thing to do.”

Back in December of 2018, Horn published a report on behalf of Port Jefferson about the North Shore rail line which described a general lack of full-time direct service between Port Jeff and Penn Station, and how current dual-mode could be used to provide such service now.

Village trustee Bruce Miller, who has also long advocated for electrifying the Port Jeff line, said replacing the diesel engines was “anathema” to what has long been proposed. It would effectively make it that much harder to argue for modern technology if the old line suddenly had new trains.

Miller has often used the refrain that people all across the North Shore, even as far east as Calverton and as west as Greenlawn, take the longer drive to places like Ronkonkoma rather than catch the closer train, only because it is both less reliable and efficient.

“Basically, you’re not entirely eliminating vehicles or cars when you have these two diesel lines on the North Shore and South Shore,” Miller said. “People aren’t factoring in pollution.”

On Sept. 17, the MTA put out a press release saying all its contracts are in jeopardy if it does not receive the $12 billion stimulus from the federal government. Some of these multibillion-dollar contracts are for companies that create and sell train and rail parts.

The September 2019 presentation of the LIRR’s capital improvement plan had included 160 new electric cars, nearly 20 coach cars and over 10 new locomotives. 

Plans have changed due to the pandemic, as the MTA looks to close a $5.8 billion budget gap for 2021. Rail lines like Port Jefferson to Huntington will still run hourly at peak periods, but others with lower ridership will not likely be so lucky. Fares are also expected to increase beyond the anticipated 4% for 2021 through 2024, and riders who are taking trips to the city will feel it in their wallets the most.

Yet the new diesel engines remain on the docket, making local advocates and officials severely question if they are still coming when so much service is getting cut.

In the MTA’s July preliminary budget presentation, it stated that a reduction or delay in the 2020-24 capital program will have a limited impact on the operating budget because, for one, the MTA’s portion is back ended, having already been funded from several tax sources. Using those sources to fund the operating budget instead would “consume cash and reduce liquidity.”

Still, there has been talk of removing some parts of the capital plan. Newsday has reported the MTA has plans to put the $230 million north/south link between the Ronkonkoma and Babylon branches on pause.

There is no money in that capital plan for Port Jeff electrification either.

The 2018 Port Jeff report by Horn notes that the Ronkonkoma line, once the LIRR expanded electrification from Hicksville to Ronkonkoma in 1987, jumped daily trips from 6,200 to 16,000 by 2007, a result of people no longer taking the Port Jeff or Montauk branches to both north and south. Less local traffic also meant a decline in the economic vitality of Upper Port.

These new diesel trains are just another factor of what Horn calls “a real lack of planning.” He lamented why the MTA, or America in general, doesn’t try to learn from countries with much better, faster and more efficient train systems like South Korea or Japan.

The greatest need, however, has been the addition of a third rail for the Port Jeff line, something that has been trumpeted and sometimes praised to be coming soon. 

“It looks to me like LIRR is basically telling us that they are going to proceed as if exempt from CLCPA, which is outrageous.”

— Steve Englebright

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has long been a proponent of electrification. As the chair of the Assembly environmental conservation committee, he said he, along with his state Senate counterpart Todd Kaminsky (D-Rockville Centre), met with Phil Eng, the head of the LIRR, late last year to talk about these new trains. 

“Quite frankly, he was not able to give us any assurance he was going to do anything but plow ahead,” Englebright said. “That was a couple months before COVID crisis basically created a whole new set of distractions.”

New York State, in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, has set the lofty goal to limit statewide greenhouse gases to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030, and 85% by 2050.

“It looks to me like LIRR is basically telling us that they are going to proceed as if exempt from CLCPA, which is outrageous,” the local assemblyman said. He added these trains could have a lifespan of 50 years.

In a letter sent to Englebright in March 2019, MTA president, Patrick Foye, said that the LIRR had been reviewing proposals for a $4 million study on Port Jeff electrification and other projects, and that it could be awarding a contract for the electrification study in early summer 2019. That study has not yet materialized and, with the MTA saying it has no updates, it’s likely it won’t any time soon.

Huntington commuters board train. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Donna Deedy

The New York State Senate passed April 1 legislation that will overhaul the Metropolitan Transit Authority and transform its operations. The legislation, included in the 2019-20 New York State budget, authorizes into law key changes to increase MTA transparency and reform its operations. This includes a comprehensive, independent forensic audit of MTA, improvements to long-term capital planning, and requires public reporting on MTA performance metrics.

New York State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said that he aggressively lobbied for passage of these reforms and committed himself to their inclusion in the final state budget.  

“I am thrilled that this year’s budget will include a core component of the MTA Rail Act: a comprehensive, independent forensic audit of the MTA,” he said. “This, coupled with a $1 billion investment into the LIRR, are critical first steps toward making Long Island’s mass transit finally work for riders.”

The reforms were also supported by railroad watchdogs and public transit commuters, fed up by years of late trains, poor communication by the MTA and rising train fares.

“The biggest complaint I hear is overcrowding as a result of cars taken out of service,” said Larry Silverman, former chair of the LIRR Commuter Council. “Monies have already been allocated for the expansion projects such as East Side Access and Third Track Main Line, so I would expect that the railroad would use the funds to keep the system in a state of good repair.”

Larry Penner, former Federal Transit Administration director in the New York region, is familiar with MTA operations, capital projects and programs. The devil, he said, is in the missing details yet to be worked out concerning passage of congestion pricing and the MTA Rail Act. The promised MTA “forensic audit” in his view is a waste of time and money. 

“Another audit will not result in significant change,” Penner said. “How many internal MTA, MTA Office of the Inspector General, state comptroller, city controller, NYC Office of Management and Budget, Federal Transit Administration OIG and other audits have come and gone.”

The best bang for the buck, he said, is for the Long Island Rail Road to further electrify rail service for five branches: Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay, Montauk, Ronkonkoma and the central branch which runs between Hicksville, Bethpage and Babylon. Investing in a one-seat-ride service to Penn Station, and eventually Grand Central, would benefit the most people. 

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone presents a $250,000 check to officials from Port Jefferson Village for a revitilization project at the railroad station. Photo by Alex Petroski

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) stopped by Port Jefferson Station Jan. 19 to drop off a very generous gift. As part of the county’s Jumpstart program, an initiative established to fund infrastructure improvements for transit-oriented areas, Bellone presented a check for $250,000 to Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant for renovations slated for the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station.

“We have to make our region more attractive [to young people],” Bellone said in an interview. “If we’re going to bring young people back to this region, we have to deliver the things that they need and want.”

The plan for the Jumpstart money is to redevelop parking lots around the train station to increase spots and improve safety in the area. To receive the actual grant money the village must first spend $250,000 on the project before receiving a full reimbursement, according to Nicole Christian who is responsible for writing and obtaining grants for the village. Port Jefferson Village is also in the process of an urban renewal project that would address vacant and blighted buildings on Main Street in Port Jefferson Station. Both projects are part of Garant and the village’s master plan to revitalize upper Port Jefferson and turn it into a more appealing “gateway” for the harborfront village.

Bellone and Mayor Margot Garant look over the area set for improvements. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We’re working with all of these different agencies — largely state agencies — but to have the county executive and the county behind us giving us this kind of money, they’re investing in what we’re doing here,” Garant said in an interview. “They see the big picture and I think that’s one of the things that made Steve a little unique in his role as county executive. He’s done this before in other areas and he knows what needs to be done. This isn’t a lot of money coming from the county level, but it’s a lot. Every little bit helps us. Just getting this is extremely important.”

Bellone commended Garant for her leadership and vision in Port Jefferson Station.

“I think, clearly this is a model and every time you see a project like this it is [the] local leadership driving it forward that is indispensible to making it happen and making it a success,” he said. “Local leadership is indispensible and partnerships between different levels of government, the private sector, universities — coming together and working together to do something that’s important for the local community and for the region.”

Fifth District Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) also praised Garant’s dedication to the revitalization of Port Jefferson Station.

“She’s been working a long time to make this happen,” Hahn said. “To have the dedication and commitment to work on a project for the amount of time and to keep at it, to see it through to now at a point where things are going up, things are getting built, we’re breaking ground on the whole vision and it takes someone special to see something through to the end.”

Hahn said she is also excited for the progress being made within her district.

“I think it’s critically important the county is investing in these types of projects, especially a transit-oriented development where we are focusing our redevelopment in an area that has access to public transportation, that makes much needed housing available for the university one stop away, that supports economic development on a number of levels,” she said.

Garant said the plan is to put the project out for bid and to begin work in the coming months.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has feuded with the federal government about getting resources to New York during the coronavirus pandemic. File photo by Erika Karp

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) briefed residents last week with his plans and proposals for the coming year in his State of the State address.

One of the more than 30 proposals focused entirely on the needs of Long Island’s infrastructure, with an investment of $160 million slated for transformative projects, including $120 million for the Long Island Rail Road, and $40 million to build sewers.

“These major, transformative investments in Long Island’s core infrastructure invest in the future resiliency and strength of the region,” Cuomo said. “Enhanced LIRR stations will connect further than they ever have before, and these vital water infrastructure projects will support environmental sustainability and bolster economic growth. With these projects, we equip Long Island with the tools and resources to drive commercial activity, create jobs and build a stronger Long Island for generations to come.”

Funds for the LIRR would go toward “state-of-the-art” enhancements at certain stations, improving system connectivity and establishing a new stop at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. According to the governor’s office, the MTA will cover $35 million of the investment. Stops on the North Shore that would receive upgrades include Northport, Stony Brook, Port Jefferson and Ronkonkoma.

A sum of $80 million will be invested in major enhancements at 16 stations to improve the customer experience — coming in at $5 million each, including new facilities, Wi-Fi, charging stations for electronics, public art, new platform waiting areas, general station renovations and improved signage. The enhancements will be customized to the needs of each station and constructed with minimal disruption. Creating a stop on the LIRR Ronkonkoma Branch to Brookhaven National Laboratory would cost $20 million.

David Manning, director of stakeholder relations for BNL, said the station would be a great asset to both the lab and the community.

“It’s really important for the future of young scientists and attracting new talent,” he said in a phone interview. “It allows us to expand our programs and would help with easier access to the lab from New York City. We are a user facility with a large employee base, so greater public transportation access to the lab would be very helpful.”

Cuomo also pledged $40 million to build sewers to support economic growth and environmental sustainability in Smithtown and Kings Park. Both areas are in the process of improving their downtown districts.

“These major, transformative investments in Long Island’s core infrastructure invest in the future resiliency and strength of the region.”
— Andrew Cuomo

Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) said the money is greatly needed to help bring positive change.

“It’s a great thing,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve been asking the county for the last three years for sewers in Kings Park and Smithtown.”

The $20 million Smithtown Business District Sewer Improvement Area project would install sanitary infrastructure and a $20 million Kings Park wastewater treatment facility would be installed in the 100-acre, 140-lot central business district adjacent to the Kings Park railroad station.

Another proposal has been on the national radar for more than a year, thanks to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cuomo said he intends to bring free college tuition to New Yorkers with the Excelsior Scholarship, a program that would make college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges.

“A college education is not a luxury — it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility, and with these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down,” Cuomo said.

It’s no secret New Yorkers are struggling with college debt. According to the state comptrollers office, student loan debt more than doubled during the last decade, growing to $82 billion, an increase of 112 percent. The number of student loan borrowers also rose sharply in New York in the last 10 years with an increase of more than 41 percent, to 2.8 million.

The program would be available for more than 940,000 middle-class families or individuals that make up to $125,000 annually and who are enrolled in a SUNY or CUNY university. According to the governor’s office, 80 percent of households in the state make $125,000 or less. Based on enrollment projections, the plan will cost approximately $163 million per year once fully phased in. The new initiative would take about three years to kick in, beginning for New Yorkers making no more than $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018 and reaching $125,000 in 2019.

Funding for the initiative would come from various aid programs. Eligible students would receive federal grants and additional state funds would cover the remaining tuition costs for incoming or existing students who qualify.

Cuomo announced the initiative at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has been a longtime supporter and advocate for free public college tuition.

“If the United States is to succeed in a highly competitive global economy, we need the best educated workforce in the world,” he said. “With exploding technology, and with most of the good paying jobs requiring more and more education, we need to make certain that every New Yorker, every Vermonter and every American gets all the education they need regardless of family income.”

“With exploding technology, and with most of the good paying jobs requiring more and more education, we need to make certain that every New Yorker gets all the education they need regardless of family income.”
—Bernie Sanders

A third proposal would attempt to tackle heroin and opioid addiction —a growing issue throughout Suffolk County, New York and the country.

The proposal aims to eliminate insurance barriers and further expand access to effective treatment, curb overprescribing, and get fentanyl and other synthetic opioids off the streets.

“This multipronged plan addresses each component of heroin and opioid addiction — prevention, treatment and recovery — in order to help break this cycle of misery and save lives,” Cuomo said.

The governor created a six-point plan, which focuses on eliminating prior authorization requirements to make substance use disorder treatment available to all; adding fentanyl analogs to the controlled substances schedule to subject emerging synthetic drugs to criminal drug penalties; increasing access to lifesaving buprenorphine treatment by recruiting health care providers to become prescribers; establishing 24/7 crisis treatment centers to ensure access to critical support services; requiring emergency department prescribers to consult the Prescription Monitoring Program registry to combat doctor shopping; and creating New York’s first recovery high schools to help young people in recovery finish school.

A synthetic opioid more potent than heroin and resistant to the effects of Narcan, fentanyl encounters more than doubled in the U.S. from 5,343 in 2014 to 13,882 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor’s office said overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl have increased by 135 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Cuomo said he intends to subject criminal drug penalties for possession of fentanyl, as well as add it to the state’s controlled substance schedule to help law enforcement curb the growing trend. He also wants to improve resources for kids and young adults struggling with drug abuse and addiction with recovery schools, where students in recovery learn in a substance-free environment to help them stay healthy and on track to graduate. Cuomo said he intends to propose legislation to create recovery high schools in regions of New York where abuse is at critical levels.

Boards of Cooperative Educational Services will submit proposals to establish the first schools, one upstate and one downstate, in partnership with local social service agencies. The board will operate the new schools, which are funded by sponsoring school districts. Enrollment will be open to all high school students with a diagnosis of a substance abuse disorder and a commitment to recovery.

Some of the governor’s other proposals included various improvements to John F. Kennedy Airport, an enhanced middle-class child care tax credit to make child care more affordable for the middle class, and promoting the use of electric vehicles with more charging stations statewide.